Terence Blacker: Government advice by text? V gd idea

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Your partner in life is having an affair. Your children ignore you. The last time you went to a parents' evening, your son's teacher had difficulty remembering who he was. Your friends have discovered that misery can be catching and avoid your company. Your cat looks at you with undisguised contempt.

But all is not lost. Soon you will be able to send a text to Ed Balls, the Government's secretary of state for relationships, and expect an instant hi-tech response from a caring agency. There, on the little screen of your mobile, will be advice about sex, marriage or parenting. "eat fmly meals 2gether + no nagging bout hmewrk!", it might say, or "Sx isnt everything! Humours gr8 bt NOT whn shes undrssing!!"

The idea behind the Government's new scheme, which is called Parent Know How and will cost £44m, is that many of those who are floundering in their private lives are too busy, embarrassed or simply hooked up to their computers, to do anything about it. People get football scores through their mobiles, says Ed Balls, so why not the news of how their child is getting on at school or information about their relationship?

Fathers, who are particularly bad at getting help with all that tricky domestic stuff, might well be the target of government advice and tips, through instant messaging and texting, from the minute their child is born. At the moment, according to one of those rather odd government surveys, 63 per cent of men receive information online.

Under the scheme, schools will be able to get in touch with parents through their computers and mobiles. As for the more intimate problems, instant advice will be available from a specialist agency, like Relate.

At first glance, it is a faintly shocking development: the Government will be interfering with the private lives of citizens who, for their part, will be communicating, in mad, staccato computerese, about the most complex and painful of their problems.

Yet there is much to be said for Parent Know How scheme. To admit that for many adults, those ghastly parents' evenings have become outmoded – less than a fifth of parents think it is the most useful way to communicate with a school – is rather daring. To say, as Balls has, that it is difficult to juggle work, childcare and quality family time risks a hurricane of whinge from traditionalists, and probably teachers, but it's a point worth making.

It is something of a breakthrough for the Government to admit that the best contact with a school may be an informal chat with a teacher in a playground, rather than the shambolic, anxiety-inducing parents' evening. Texts and instant messages may not be the preferred method of communication of carers, but at least they have a chance of getting through to parents.

Of course, there are snags to the new approach. Those parents' evenings, one suspects, are as much about keeping an eye on parents as reporting the progress of children. Nagging fathers by text may well be counter-productive in some cases.

But, as with the rather sensible idea of including children in the interviewing process of new teachers, the initiative suggests that the Government is thinking radically about families and education. For all the protests, there is something encouraging about a minister who is prepared to question the formal and traditional way of doing things.

Behind these schemes lies the belief that, treated right, parents can behave like grown-ups and children can be responsible. It is a brave and novel idea and, who knows, it might even work.

Not so modest after all

The soon-to-be-royal Canadian, Autumn Kelly, must be confused. She had been going out with the Englishman Peter Phillips for six weeks before she discovered, while watching a TV documentary, that her boyfriend was the son of Princess Anne and 11th in line to the throne. But then Phillips's modesty vanished like the morning mist.

The couple will be married tomorrow at a wedding sponsored to the tune of £500,000 by Hello! magazine, which will devote 19 pages to what it calls "the ultra private pair".

Not any more. Ordinary he may be but, by taking the Hello! shilling, Phillips has earned a place for himself and Autumn in the grim outer suburbs of Celebrityville reserved for minor royals.

20 years of Hello!, Extra

* Few countries in the world are in quite such a muddle about patriotism as the British. Pride in one's country is commendable, goes the official line, but, taken too far, can tip into xenophobia or nationalism. So it was brave of the Immigration minister, Liam Byrne, while announcing a plan to make skilled workers from countries outside the EU learn English before they can work here, to invoke Britishness.

Asked about footballers from Africa and South America, Byrne admitted that the Government had considered waiving the rules for these important members of the community, before deciding that it would be "un-British" to do so. Presumably what he meant was that it would be unfair to expect foreigners to play football without appreciating the rich vocabulary that is part of it, notably during discussions with the referee and in chants from the crowd.

Now they will be able to understand the full verbal beauty of our national game. It makes you proud to be British.

terblacker@aol.com

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